Fern Chertok is an Associate Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (more bio here), and was in charge of the new and very interesting study: Volunteering + Values: A Repair The World Report on Jewish Young Adults. Some news reports had covered this study in the last two weeks (see here and here), but I had some unanswered questions and Chertok kindly agreed to respond:
Your study tells us that “a majority of contemporary Jewish young adults engage in volunteer work” – and while that might sound impressive, it can’t be understood without some additional data: Do they volunteer more than the non-Jewish young adults? If not, what makes volunteer work of young Jews different than volunteer work of all young Americans?
The information for this answer is available in the Volunteering + Values Technical Report available on our website.
Comparing the volunteer rate obtained in the current survey to national surveys of volunteering is difficult due to the different ways each of these surveys asks about volunteering. Specifically, the rate of volunteering usually rises as the number of questions asked about volunteering increases. This phenomenon can be seen by comparing the volunteer participation of the subset of young adults with similar educational backgrounds in the Volunteering + Values study and in three national surveys of volunteering (Table 1). The Current Population Study of the United States and the Center on Philanthropy Panel Study had similar rates of volunteering while Giving and Volunteering in the United States reports a much larger figure. Respondents in the latter survey were given more opportunities to indicate that they volunteered and the definition of volunteering was very expansive. Because volunteer participation is sensitive to question wording it is not appropriate to compare volunteer rates directly between this survey and other national datasets.
TABLE 1: Comparison of Volunteer Rates across Survey
In order to really understand differences between the patterns of volunteering of Jewish and non-Jewish young adults you would need to study them within the context of the same study. National data from two of the three largest surveys of volunteering, Giving and Volunteering in the United States (Independent Sector, 2001) and the Current Population Survey; Volunteer Supplement (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009) do not include information about the religious identity of respondents so we cannot compare the rates of Jewish young adults and their non-Jewish peers. The third national study, the Center on Philanthropy Panel Study (Wilhelm et al., 2005) asked respondents about their religion, but included too small a number of Jewish young adults, to allow for meaningful comparison.
2. And another missing component: Do they volunteer more than their elders from previous Jewish generations?
A good question but again the information required to answer it is not available. As previously noted national surveys of volunteering either do not include information about the religious identity of respondents or include too small a number of Jewish respondents to allow for meaningful comparison. Previous research on the Jewish community specifically looked at attitudes toward and involvement in social justice efforts, a subset of volunteer engagement (Cohen & Fein, 2001).
Also, volunteering rates change over the lifespan so it is not appropriate to compare between different age groups. Instead one would have to do a longitudinal analysis to see if there is a generational change. In other words do the current generation of young adults, volunteer more or less than their parent’s generation when they are at that point in their life? Volunteering + Values is the first comprehensive study of Jewish young adult volunteering and will provide baseline numbers for tracking the level of volunteer engagement of this generation over time as well as providing a methodology and survey instrument that can be applied to other age groups.
3. One of the most interesting findings in your study relates to the fact that the offspring of intermarried couples volunteer more than those who come from in-married households. You speculate that the reason might be “sense of identity and obligation that is more expansive” among the product of the intermarried households. You also suggest the possibility that “intermarried parents may encourage volunteering as an easily agreed upon and non-religious avenue for imparting compassion.” Political correctness aside: Is there not a possibility that volunteering is more a value associated with the Christian tradition – hence the higher percentage of intermarried children involved with it?
Unfortunately, the current research does not allow us to determine the mechanism by which growing up in an interfaith family leads to greater likelihood of volunteering. Since our survey did not ask the religious background of non-Jewish parents it is very speculative to imply that something about Christianity, in particular, is what non-Jewish parents pass on to their children in intermarried families. Our hypothesis that because parents of different faith backgrounds can agree on the shared emphasis on helping in all major religions that this becomes a fertile area for moral teaching of children in these families needs more research and is far from being a conclusion at this point.
4. Israel “distancing” is much talked about in recent years. Your study shows that the “Conservative” (politically) are three times more likely to think that involvement in volunteering associated with Israel/ME peace is important. Is this not a sign of young Jewish “distancing” from Israel for political reasons?
As my colleague Theodore Sasson cogently points out, there is no reason to believe that young Jews are any more “distant” from Israel than previous generations were at the same developmental point in their lifespan. The Volunteering + Values study captures a moment in time and cannot, by the very nature of the data, show a generational trend toward or away from support of Israel or toward or away from different political stances. In our study, those who identified as politically conservative were also more likely to identify as religiously Orthodox and to have greater involvement in religious life. As you know, the Orthodox and religiously traditional have always been more connected to Israel. In other words, it is not surprising to find this connection between political ideology and support for Israel among young adults and in this regard they are very much like older cohorts.
It is also important to understand the current data on interest in volunteering to support Israel/Middle East peace within the context of a larger discussion of the causes that are of interest to young adults. Jewish young adults are most motivated to serve when they think they can make a difference in the lives of others and when they can work on issues about which they care deeply. Although Jewish young adults have a diverse set of interests, clearly some issues and causes have greater potential to attract participation than others. The top issue for which young Jewish adults want to volunteer is assisting the poor in America, but the next most commonly cited issues are the environment and sustainability, education and literacy, healthcare and medical research, and the eradication of poverty. Portions of the Jewish young adult population are also interested in assisting youth, peace and conflict resolution, protecting human rights, and humane treatment of animals. One challenge is to develop volunteer opportunities that address these core generational concerns with support of Israel.
5. If young Jews insist that volunteer work is important because they want to “make a difference in people’s lives” – much more than because “it is a Jewish value” – maybe critics of Tikkun Olam fashions are right, and the whole notion of volunteering as the new venue for Jewish involvement isn’t authentic and can’t fly? Also: Many Jewish leaders believed (and might still believe) that the best way to engage Jewish youngsters is through social work and Tikkun Olam projects. But your study doesn’t quite support such assumption, as it shows that the most engaged are the ones who volunteer more than other Jews – or does it?
I think that would be called “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” First and foremost our study shows that Jewish young adults are committed to working toward the common good and they believe they can make a difference. Our study does show that Jewish religious engagement is a predictor of greater likelihood of volunteering but so is having a history of volunteering from the teen years.
Volunteering as a venue for Jewish involvement faces the same challenges as any other approach to outreach. For most Jewish young adults, Jewish identity is separate from most aspects of their day to day lives. In much the same way they see volunteering as an activity partitioned off from their Jewish identity. They do not completely disavow Jewish values but do not see them as very relevant to their volunteer commitments. The challenge is to help these young adults see their volunteer work, regardless of its sponsorship or focus, as a Jewish act.
Our study also shows great potential for the Jewish community to reach out to young adults and help them address the concerns about which they care most deeply within a Jewish context. Jewish young adults believe they can make a difference and they want to do just that. Remember, most young adults in our survey (78%) do not care if the sponsor of their volunteering is Jewish or non-Jewish. In other words, most Jewish young adults are open to the idea of volunteering through the Jewish community. However, even when Jewish young adults are open to volunteering under Jewish auspices, they simply do not know what opportunities exist. Few recall recruitment efforts by Jewish organizations, and their diverse social networks are more likely to lead them to discover opportunities outside the Jewish community. A related theme is the perceived lack of local Jewish volunteer options especially related to the causes about which Jewish young adults care most deeply. What this suggests is that the Jewish community needs to do a better job of getting the word out about the excellent work being done to address universal causes. It also means that the Jewish community needs to expand the repertoire of volunteering options to more closely address the concerns of Jewish young adults.